Nineteen year old Instagram sensation Essena O’Neill dramatically quit social media last week. In a video posted on her Youtube channel she unleashed a barrage of vitriol against the ‘fake’ world of social media and sponsored advertisements. On Instagram she re-captioned all her posts to reflect the ‘reality’ behind each photo. A picture of her smiling at the camera reads ‘NOT REAL LIFE- took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister…’. The video stirred up widespread debate on personal brands, advertising, underage modelling and the effects of social media on the mental health of young people. So is social media to blame for this breakdown? Is Instagram really causing teenage insecurities?
Social media has increasingly caused concern for the potentially damaging impact which it can have on teenager’s mental health, in a similar vein to how glossy magazines have consistently been accused of causing anxiety amongst teenage girls to be thin and glamorous. Anorexia is not something you catch from looking at models though, it is a mental illness – it is centuries old. In her video Essena talks about how she would Google the size of models thighs and waists to push herself to shrink down. She thought if she could look like one of those models she would be happy. These feelings have been true of teenagers for decades, not just the last ten years.
Teenagers often feel insecure – it’s not new. Essena’s breakdown could have happened in a different way had she not had an Instagram account – we’ll never know and we wouldn’t have known about it had she not had access to social media. So before we bash Instagram and blame Facebook for these insecurities, it is important to remember that those insecurities existed before they were invented. It is not social media causing these anxieties; we just need to be better at using it.
Teenagers will always be susceptible to peer-pressure, feeling judged, and concerned about their looks. For a social media ‘personality’ or ‘brand’ like Essena I can see why she became hooked on the validation she got from these sites – the likes and lovely comments are addictive. Anyone would enjoy it, particularly a vulnerable teenage girl looking for approval and recognition. Essena was too young to appreciate this for what it was though — fake. Social media can make you very unhappy (encourages life comparisons, FOMO etc) but equally it can be amazing (Earthpix for example). Essena was brave to post the video and she is impressively good at gaining followers. She speaks for a generation of young people who are growing up on these sites, but her concerns and anxiety are normal for someone her age. She has done the right thing to leave social media completely for now and I hope she’s okay. Perhaps one day she will return to it; after all, no-one should be without their daily dose of the Fat Jewish. Social media doesn’t help with anxiety (and will probably make it worse if you let it) but it is not the cause.